It was only the other day (Miscellany, September 26) that I had wondered why all news of potential destruction/new construction at heritage sites kept coming to me first and not to the Heritage Conservation Committee or its sire, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority. Well, in the two latest cases that have been brought to my attention, I'm glad to note that at least one of them has also been brought to the notice of the CMDA.

It was some weeks ago that I had made inquiries with someone who should know whether there were any plans to build a sheltering space for worshippers in front of the city's biggest and most historic mosque, the Wallajah Mosque, and was categorically told that there were no such plans. Now I find that the H.H. The Prince of Arcot Endowments, which governs the Mosque, has sought permission to put up an asbestos/fibre glass covered enclosure in the space in front of the mosque to protect the worshippers from the elements. The request particularly points out that, during Ramzan and Bakrid, the congregation for the Eid prayers is so large that it spills out of the mosque into the open space and, if there is heavy rain, shamianas put up are inadequate to prevent the congregation from being drenched.

Now, there's a tricky question for the HCC and perhaps it should open up the discussion and seek the views of the heritage architects in the city in arriving at an equitable solution. That the congregation needs protection from the elements — if it cannot all fit into the mosque — is indisputable. But at the same time how do you prevent the façade of a heritage structure from being hidden, particularly in the context of the open space in front of it being part of a design element ensuring visibility and openness.

This same question is bound to arise in other historic places of worship in the city, such as the San Thomé Basilica, where the open space is on one side. Perhaps the answer lies in the Endowments' letter which specifies Ramzan and Bakrid as being the time when the congregation spills over. Perhaps temporary shelters for a particular period alone could be permitted — and that too after the heritage experts make their suggestions on the design of such shelters.

The Wallajah Mosque, also known as the Big Mosque, was built in 1795 off what is now Triplicane High Road, with Nawab Wallajah's family playing a major role in the construction. Built of grey granite, with no wood or steel used, it is considered one of the most beautiful mosques in South India. The mosque can comfortably seat a few thousand worshippers. In it is a chronogram engraved in stone and unique because it is perhaps the only work by a Hindu to be found in a mosque; the words in Persian are by Rajah Makhan Lal Khirat, Private Secretary to Nawab Wallajah and a scholar in Persian and Arabic.

The mosque, set in vast grounds, cannot be seen from Triplicane High Road today, hidden as it is by much new construction, all of it tasteless. But enter through the almost hidden gate and the open space before you enables the visitor to enjoy unhindered the splendour of the mosque. That vision needs to be protected.

…… and in another

Other building plans I have heard of are in Loyola College. Here, the tennis courts, where such leading Tamil Nadu players such as Ramanathan Krishnan honed their skills, have already given way to new buildings and a glorious marker to the College's contribution to Indian tennis has been erased. Next on the list, I hear, are the hostels, to be pulled down to make way for multi-storey tower blocks.

I sympathise with the College's dilemma. Founded in 1925 with 75 students, with the aim of being the South's premier Roman Catholic college, it had, under the stewardship of Fr. Bertram, made “spectacular” progress by 1928. That progress included Fr. Bertram developing its 64-acre campus as one of the most tree-rich spaces in the city and raising around its central pond — a relic of the Nungambakkam Long Tank on whose reclaimed land the campus was developed — a handsome set of buildings reflecting the Western architectural styles of the 1920s and 1930s specifically adapted to the tropics. Today, those buildings have to house something like 6000 students.

These buildings include the hostel blocks. The blocks may not reflect modernity but they do stand out as examples of not only a particular period of public architecture but also provide a glimpse into a way of life in an earlier era. In the hands of heritage architects, they could easily be modernised without changing their character. And new blocks could be developed to harmonise with them. But that can only happen if the College lives up to its reputation of being one of the few colleges in India focused on the Humanities and seeks expert heritage help, instead of taking the easy way out and going the modern builder's way.

Meanwhile, I wonder what the Heritage Conservation Committee's take is on all this construction in a heritage precinct. Once again the HCC is likely to be faced with a dilemma; the needs of today versus conservation of the past. It can be done, as has been demonstrated in many parts of the world, including Asia. It needs only the will on both sides to work together to find a solution that answers both needs.

When the postman knocked…

*T.L. Sankar Narayanan sends me a wealth of information about the site on which the new headquarters of the Indian Bank has arisen (Miscellany, September 19). The property, he tells me, belonged to the brothers Lakshminarayana Iyer (his father) and Ramaswamy Iyer, both dubashes of Best & Co. Work on their garden house, Lalitha Sadan, began in 1913 and dragged on, due to the Great War, till 1919. The plinth area of the house was 9000 square feet when finished and the first floor matched it. Italian marble of the best quality was used for much of the flooring. The drawing room, 40 feet by 20 feet, had a ceiling specially imported from Germany.

The grounds of the house stretched from Lloyd's Road up to Royapettah High Road, to where Swagath Hotel now is. In that acreage today there is much residential development on a street subsequently created and named Lalithapuram Street. Lalitha Sadan also had a tennis court and six cottages for the staff. All reflecting the success the family had achieved in trade.

Trade, unfortunately, does not always favour the brave and the family lost heavily, including on an order for rails for the railways placed in Germany which World War II overtook, the large advance payments not to be seen again. These misfortunes necessitated selling most of the Lalitha Sadan property.

Writes Sankar Narayanan, “Finally, in 1953, the creditors (one of them was the Indian Bank) brought the house and the left over land, about 40 grounds, to a public auction at which the Indian Bank bought it. The house stood (used as a records office) till about three years ago when it was demolished.” And so the new Indian Bank headquarters came up. But I wonder what happened to the records.

* Dr. Dorasami Raman sends me a “little tale” and says it is “perhaps of no consequence to anyone”. His presumption is based on the fact that his tale has nothing to do with anything I've written nor does it convey any special information. But I do consider it of consequence, because his communication does attest to the reach of this column; he writes from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands where he is settled. A letter from the middle of the Atlantic, forsooth!

Be that as it may, Dorasami Raman's letter wonders whether the Lady Bentinck School for Girls still exists in the Periamet area; that's where his mother Saraswathi Dorasami went to school when Mrs. Alice Barnes (nee Varley) was the Headmistress. Mr. Barnes, Saraswathi Dorasami was to later find, had taught her husband at Madras Christian College. Given that lead, of the Barnes couple I'll have more to say next week, but with Gandhi Jayanthi just having been celebrated, I'll this week relate Alice Barnes' Gandhian connection as narrated by my correspondent.

When Ted Barnes passed away, Alice Barnes joined the Sarvodhya and freedom movements and later became an Indian citizen. She then settled in Ilkely in Kotagiri, their holiday home, where she once recalled how, when Ted and she were one day picnicking in Dodabetta, a huge tiger sauntered past them, oblivious to their presence. Dorasami Raman also relates that she was a close associate of fellow-Gandhian Marjorie Sykes. “They were the pioneers in recycling, organic farming etc., which are such buzz words now.”

Alice Barnes, Dorasami Raman, adds, adopted an Indian infant who had been “literally thrust into her arms by an exhausted Burmese evacuee during World War II.” When the little girl, who had been named Premila, grew up, Alice Barnes sent her to one of London's biggest and best hospitals for training as a paediatric nurse. After Premila returned to Madras, she worked at the Lady Willingdon Nursing Home for many years. My correspondent wonders what has happened to her; he lost touch with her in the late 1960s.


MetroplusJune 28, 2012